Minnesota police reaching out to abuse victims, before it’s too late

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2013 - 11:45 PM

The Trevino killing is a stark reminder of the danger that spikes when someone decides to leave an abuser.

Kira Trevino’s slaying reminds Amy Christiansen, whose ex-husband once held a gun to her head, of just how easily she could have met her own violent end.

Trevino, 30, of St. Paul, disappeared Feb. 21. Large amounts of blood in her home and car and her weeklong disappearance led prosecutors to take the rare step Thursday of charging her husband, Jeffery Trevino, in a case with no body.

Kira Trevino’s death is believed to be the latest intimate-partner killing in Minnesota, which took the lives of 18 people in 2012.

While such fatalities have been falling over time, criminal justice officials and those fighting domestic abuse are working to bolster their prevention efforts, including threat-assessment screenings for victims that can trigger quick responses from police and the courts.

Christiansen, one of the first to use the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) questionnaire in Minnesota, said she believes every police department should use it.

The common denominator in many deadly cases is that the victim was trying to leave. For example, Tensia Richard, 22, was gunned down in Cottage Grove last October by her estranged husband, who then killed himself.

“When a victim decides to leave an abusive situation, she is at a 75 percent greater risk of being seriously injured or killed by the perpetrator because he has lost all control,” said Shelley Johnson Cline, executive director of the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project.

For some abusers, taking a life becomes the ultimate act of control, said Cottage Grove Police Sgt. Randy McAlister, who trains police, prosecutors and probation officers on domestic violence.

LAP, which McAlister helped introduce to Washington County in 2010, is used to connect victims with services and give judges crucial information. Anoka County uses it, too, as does Project Remand, a nonprofit that provides pretrial services in Ramsey County.

Over the next six months, police in all Ramsey County cities except St. Paul will be trained to use the protocol to assess how likely it is that a victim will be reinjured or killed, McAlister said.

“It gives us a way to quantify the risk of homicide in domestic abuse cases, rather than just being guesswork,” he said.

Of love and lethality

In Kira Trevino’s case, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said, “the system didn’t ever have a chance to intervene” because police never interacted with the couple.

“It makes me realize how fortunate I was to get away when I did, and to get away safely,” Christiansen, 48, said Friday. “When I hear things like that, it makes me want to do whatever I can do to help other women.”

In the fall of 2010, she told her husband of 20 years that she was taking the kids and leaving. He’d never before been physically violent. But a month later, he broke in. Drunk, he pointed a revolver at her face and cocked the trigger. “I’m going to kill you, and then I’m going to kill myself,” he told her.

The couple’s 16-year-old daughter talked her father into putting the gun down.

“Two days after everything happened,” Christiansen said, “I was already starting to minimize, and I think that’s a normal human reaction. You want to say, ‘He didn’t mean it. He was just drunk.’ Nobody wants to see that in somebody that they either loved at one time, or still love.”

A questionnaire, which McAlister administered, ranked her lethality risk at 26 out of 28 on a scale; 18 is considered dangerous. She left her husband, using a safety plan, and he was jailed.

She and McAlister now speak publicly about the protocol, first developed in Maryland, and the importance of recognizing warning signs. They’ll hold a free public presentation from 6 to 9 p.m. March 18 at Park High School in Cottage Grove.

In that city and elsewhere in Washington County, officers call Tubman services, the 24-hour contact for the Lethality Assessment Protocol, right from the victim’s home.

“We’re hearing that officers are comfortable with the tool, they’re using it, and as a result, victims are being connected with Tubman and services,” said Sandy Hahn, Washington County’s deputy director of community corrections.

Meanwhile, St. Paul is beginning the third year of Blueprint for Safety. Championed by Choi, it’s the first comprehensive effort to link criminal justice agencies in a coherent intervention model. Now used throughout Ramsey County, it’s a prototype that can be used by any community. It involves asking more questions about the suspect’s level of anger and violence and moving more quickly to issue charges and arrest warrants.

“What we do is not just about processing the work that is in front of us,” Choi said, “but also to make sure that we are looking at domestic violence situations as homicide prevention.”

The new philosophy and multiagency approach have speeded up prosecutions of batterers who are gone before police arrive, Choi said. In the past, such cases had languished up to 45 days. Now those cases are charged more quickly.

“When we are responding to a domestic situation, we apply these new principles and practices,” he said. “But we never had a chance in the Trevino case, because there was never an interaction between this couple and law enforcement.”

‘Please reach out’

The dynamics of leaving an abusive relationship are complex, and victims fear making things worse by leaving, Cline said. “It’s very frightening for victims to try to reach out,” she said. “So much of their life has been taken out of their control that they’re often afraid that the situation is just going to escalate because the perpetrator will find out.”

Cline wants victims to know that when they call a battered women’s program, their information is kept confidential. Programs will work with victims as they’re planning to leave, when they leave and afterward.

She, Christiansen and others said anyone leaving an abusive person should use caution.

“Please reach out,” Cline said, urging not only victims but also those who care about them to call domestic violence advocates to set up a safety plan.

“There’s a whole community out there that wants to help them, that believes they do not deserve to live in fear, and that they have value in our community’s eyes.”

 

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

 

  • Resources for those facing domestic violence

    An online self-assessment tool: www.mosaicmethod.com

    National Domestic Violence Hotline: www.thehotline.org

    Day One Domestic Violence Crisis: 1-866-223-1111

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